Thursday, October 30, 2014

Slow 'n Steady

I consider myself to be a writer.  Like learning an instrument, writing takes time and experience in order to master.  The stringing of words together in a way that makes for a gripping tale takes practice.  Lots of practice.

The process of learning how to write is interesting to me.  I've tinkered around with stories since I was a teen--in the same way one might tinker around on the piano without any training--but I don't consider my formal training to have started until my adult years.

Again, like music, the life lessons taught by writing are gradual.  You don't just suddenly wake up one day with a Harry Potter or Moby Dick on your hands.  Each day you work at your story until one day you notice that the plot just seems to flow better now than it did a year or two years ago.

But the most significant thing that I've learned is the power of "slow 'n steady."  When I aggressively started my writing career the actual act of sitting down to write was entirely dependent on my "muse."  I had this idea in my head that a "good" writing session meant the words were pouring out and I got more than 1,000 of them down on the page.

What this led to was frustration.

I would sit down at the computer, write only a paragraph or two and then become overwhelmed by how much I had left to write before it was a "good" writing session.  As a result, days or weeks could slip by without much progress.

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that all these lofty aspirations were my greatest enemies.

It finally occurred to me that it all came down to the math.  As it stood on the muse track I got 2,000 words down on a page in a good month.  2,000 words and tons of extra time spent putzing around on the Internet while I waited for motivation.

Now, I'm not an abnormally slow writer.  The thing that was holding me back was my unrealistic expectation of what should be done in a day.  But writing a story is not about the single day.  It's about every day.

2,000 words x 12 months = 24,000 words a year (the length of a novella)

If I lowered my goal and wrote an easily attainable 200 words every weekday:

200 words x 261 (number of weekdays in a year) = 52,200 (the length of a novel)

By dropping my unrealistic expectations and switching to small, easily attainable daily goals I more than doubled my writing output over the course of the year.

And I realized that the same holds true in music.  Waiting for the perfect practicing day where you are fed and happy and focused is a waste of time.  It's the small, daily accomplishments that are going to get the job done in the long term.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Intermediate Player

The concept of being "intermediate" is something often overlooked.  Everyone is guilty of this regardless of age.  Though most would not admit as much, there seems to be this unspoken expectation that a student goes from "beginner" and then immediately jumps to "expert."

What happened to intermediate?

Understanding the basics of an instrument and achieving a reasonable amount of control is really only just the beginning of the learning process.  Just because the student can't play everything doesn't mean that the student is a failure or even that the effort was wasted.  Being intermediate at something is the only way to eventually become advanced.

The learning curve is not a straight upward line.  It may resemble such in the beginning when everything is a new concept.  But eventually this line plateaus.  Learning happens in phases and there is a definite possibility that things could get worse at times before things get better.

Being intermediate is far more difficult than being advanced.  At the advanced level most music seems achievable given enough time and effort.  At the intermediate level the mental knowledge has outstripped physical ability and the result is frustration.  The effort of achieving mastery seems daunting, making everything achieved so far appear trivial.

But take comfort in the fact that these feelings are normal.  It is part of the learning process and there's no way to skip this step.  Every advanced musician that you hear playing was both a beginner and intermediate player at some point.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Way of Life

One of the most interesting facets to learning an instrument is how young many of us begin our musical studies.  It it commonly accepted practice to start a child at four years old and expect that he keep at it until adulthood.  Perhaps I should even add that this is the expectation for formal musical studies.

At least this is the expectation.

The reality is that when many parents sign their children up for music lessons it is just another activity.  The parent may agree with how music benefits a child and there is excitement over starting something new... but it is still just another "thing" on the schedule.

Learning an instrument is not a simple or quick process.  It takes years to learn proficiency and even longer to achieve mastery.  To attempt this type of pursuit over such an extended period of time means that music must eventually transform from an activity to a way of life.

The student becomes a musician.

Now this doesn't mean the student has become a professional musician or will even study the subject in college.  It means that music has become part of the student's life.  By starting at such a young age there will be a point where the student can't remember a time he didn't play an instrument.  That's a very powerful concept.  That means that the instrument has become a fixture in the growing up process.

It is at this point that the student begins to take ownership of his instrument.  Practicing will still be difficult (it almost always is).  But the nature of the practicing will have changed.  Practicing is just something the student does.  It's a part of life.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

When to Practice by Yourself Part 2

In part one I discussed how the child changes around the age of eight.  In a nutshell: the child goes from highly motivated to please her parents to wanting to become independent.  This shift in the source of motivation can cause quite a bit of at-home tension.

So the first thing to do is acknowledge who wants want.  That adult/parent wants the child to play.  The child wants to play by herself.  A middle ground must be reached.

Since the child is motivated by independence, the adult should acknowledge this need.  Approach this slowly.  Find easy tasks that the child doesn't seem to need much help with.  For example, sight reading assignments.  If there's no new complicated rhythm in the sight reading, it's not unreasonable to have the child work on figuring out the sight reading on her own.  The goal of the assignment (to read notes) is very cut and dry.

The same goes for figuring out a new piece.  Provided the child has all the appropriate tools (sheet music and a recording) then there is no reason why she can't start this process on her own if that's the assignment from the teacher.

The adult's arena is to ensure quality.  This is less cut and dry and will also be met with resistance.  But it's also the adult's responsibility to establish the boundaries.  Establish what areas the child can do independently and what areas must be done together.  And then stick to those boundaries.

Anything that requires detailed perfecting should be a joint effort.  This is not simply about the number of repetitions.  This is about the number of quality repetitions.  So, for example, if there is a tricky passage in a piece of music.  The child may have an understanding of the passage but the adult is there to see that the passage is executed the same way every time.

A really good strategy for working with children of this age is to have a reliable neutral party.  This means having a recording device or a mirror readily available.  The neutral party removes the conflicting points of view.  Both the adult and the child knows the assignment.  The neutral party is there to prove if the assignment is being done correctly.

Monitoring quality does not mean that the adult has to be an overbearing tyrant during the practice.  Sometimes just being in the same room is enough to remind the child that quality is going to be important.  The job of the adult is to assert the lesson that practicing is not a simple task and is about more than establishing independence.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

When to Practice by Yourself Part 1

There is a huge difference between the four-year-old student and the eight-year-old student.  That might sound like an obvious statement.  Of course an eight-year-old is different.  And yet--almost without fail--the parent is inevitably shocked when it happens.  One day the child is fine happily following directions.  The next day that same child wants to do everything himself.

When this change takes place some things are easy to allow.  Of course the child can make his own cereal or dress himself.  Those are simple tasks and it's important that he start feeling independent.  With independence comes more responsibility.  The chores that can be assigned to an eight-year-old are different from what a four-year-old could do.  In many ways it's a relief for the parent not to have to monitor the child's every move.

But when comes to practicing this newfound independence usually leads to fights.  Gone are the days where the child is happily using a dice to determine the number of repetitions.  Now every repetition is a battle.  And to top it all off, the parent--in the child's eyes--is stupid and knows "nothing" about the instrument.

So the parent becomes exasperated and throws in the towel.  "Correctness" seems less important than just having a day where the child practices without a fight.  After all, isn't the most important thing that the child just plays?

Well... yes and no.

Here's the thing: an instrument is not a simple task.  This is something an adult understands but a child does not.  To the eight-year-old all tasks are equal.  The bottom line during this age is independence.  So long as the child gets to do it himself it's a victory.  Quality is not something that even crosses his mind.

But the adult can see that the quality is suffering.  It's not enough to merely do something ten times.  It has to be ten good times or the lesson will not be learned.  It is this conflict of interest that causes fights to ensue.

So when should a child practice by himself?  More on that in part two....

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Persistence Part 2

So let's go back to the practicing scenario.  If a student starts young--say, 3 or 4 years old--the decision to play an instrument comes from the parents.  Yes, a child may have expressed an interest in music but most certainly not in the hours and hours of practicing it will take to become proficient.  It is no wonder that this results in tantrums.  In the child's mind, this is not what he signed up for.

Where's the motivation?

There's no one answer to this.  Just like how there's no one answer for why you didn't exercise on that one day.  Maybe you didn't feel like it.  Maybe you were just plain ol' tired.  Maybe you were sore from the previous day's workout.  Maybe all three of these things.

Difficult practicing work may not be a top priority for a student so it's important to understand what does motivate the child.  Up until the teenage years, the desire to please is a very strong motivator.  If the child is receiving constant positive feedback and support from his parents the hard work begins to seem like more worth the struggle.

It takes awhile before a child is mature enough to understand the passage of time.  To him, the lesson could have just as easily been last month as last week.  This means the child most certainly does not understand the reason why he has to practice now so that way when he's 85 he'll be really really good at playing. Smaller goals also help with the concept of time.  Giving the student more immediate goals such as having three practices without tears (and hopefully a smile!) makes the challenges seem more tangible.

These are ideas but what persistence boils down to in the early days of lessons is persistence from the parents.  This is a tall order because persistence is not a natural thing.  The natural thing is to want to give up as soon as we are met with resistance.  Remember the gym?  If we, as adult, have the ability to give up on exercise so easily--even while knowing that it is necessary--then only imagine the mental struggle a child must be going through.

The key is not to become overwhelmed.  Accomplishing small tasks eventually adds up to a larger whole.  Don't think about how your child is never going to get a music scholarship with all these tantrums.  Focus on this week, this day, this moment.